'The factual question with respect to Iran's connections to Al-Qaeda is very real'
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday accused Iran of ties to Al-Qaeda and declined to say whether the Trump administration had legal authority to invade the country.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo hedged on whether the authorization of force by the US Congress days after the September 11, 2001 attacks would allow the United States to strike Iran.
"I would prefer just to leave that to lawyers," Pompeo told Senator Rand Paul, a Republican who is critical of US foreign interventions.
"The factual question with respect to Iran's connections to Al-Qaeda is very real. They have hosted Al-Qaeda, they have permitted Al-Qaeda to transit their country," he said.
"There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Al-Qaeda. Period, full stop," he said.
But Pompeo denied Paul's suggestion that President Donald Trump's designation Monday of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards was aimed at making a legal case for war.
"It was not part of the decision-making process. The designation was a simple recognition of reality," Pompeo said, citing US figures that Iran was behind more than 600 deaths of US troops in Iraq after the 2003 invasion when Tehran backed Shiite forces.
Trump has piled pressure on Iran after last year withdrawing from a nuclear accord negotiated under previous president Barack Obama, slapping sweeping sanctions as Washington seeks to roll back the clerical regime's regional influence.
Paul voiced concern that Pompeo had not rejected war with Iran under the 2001 authorization, which has been used to back the war in Afghanistan as well as attacks on Al-Qaeda in countries as diverse as Yemen and the Philippines.
"I am troubled that the administration can't unequivocally say that you haven't been given power or authority by Congress to have war with Iran," Paul said.
"In any kind of semblance of a sane world, you would have to come back and ask us before you go into Iran," Paul said. The US Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress.
Paul also rejected the idea that Iran, a Shiite clerical regime, would ally with Al-Qaeda, Sunnis whose ranks have denounced Shiites as heretics.
"I don't think that dog hunts very well," Paul said of Pompeo's statement. "They actually would just as soon eradicate Sunni extremists."
Iran is believed to have been the long time base of Hamza bin Laden, the son of late Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
But some experts say Tehran kept him under house arrest as a way to maintain pressure on rival Saudi Arabia and dissuade Al-Qaeda attacks inside Iran.